By: Dr Raulston Nembhard
Every leader, whether of a country or an organisation, ought to be concerned about what legacy they leave behind. The matter carries greater weight when one is the president of a country like the United States, which is regarded as the only superpower and whose moral authority in the world is considered a given. But since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the Second World War, there has been a steady decline of America’s influence in the world. This decline reached catastrophic proportions under the presidency of George W Bush when America invaded Iraq and set in train the destabilisation of an entire region and the rise of the fearful ISIS caliphate.
Today, the world is at a more confused and dangerous state than it has ever been. If there was ever a time when the moral authority of America needed to be felt, it is now. Yet, America seems to be at its weakest point in its relationship with the rest of the world. In this context, the question of whether President Obama has been the best of what America has to offer to world leadership must be considered.
Since Iraq was kicked over, American foreign policy in the Middle East has been one of uncertainty and confusion. For his part, Obama has bungled the policy, removing traditional allies from power, such as Mubarak in Egypt, and creating a vacuum in the leadership of Libya by removing Gaddafi. The president claims that this has been one of his biggest regrets in office, but that is yet to be judged by history.
His work in Syria has not been scintillating, not to mention the fight against ISIS in particular. For a country that boasts the most powerful and sophisticated military in the history of mankind, America’s military approach to the crisis in Syria must be described, at best, as parlous, if not juvenile. The greatest military on the face of the earth has not been able to eliminate a ragtag band of terrorists mistakenly and arrogantly dismissed by the president in the early days of the rise of ISIS as a mere junior varsity team. This “junior varsity” team has since captured territory to the extent that it was able to declare its own caliphate.
Important heritage sites, such as those in Palmyra which enjoy the protection of the United Nations, were destroyed. While all of this was happening, a wide swath of the Syrian population was being displaced. Those who were not killed made the dangerous trip across to Europe as refugees or resigned themselves to the fate of living under brutal ISIS rule. Even then the American response to this humanitarian crisis could best be described as tepid.
It was left to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to carry the brunt of the burden for resettling these refugees. Whether she saw this as part of a continuing need to purify German conscience or of collective atonement for German sins against the Jews is immaterial. She stepped up to the plate while America dithered and calculated. Today, her political viability stands in great doubt as the inevitable clash between German and Arab culture begins to take hold.
In all of these crises America has remained largely absent; the most powerful military on earth has remained largely impotent in the face of these atrocities. It has not led where the rest of the world expected it to. Its moral authority has been deficient of the urgency required when working with its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies to surround and cauterise ISIS. Obama has been the quintessential reluctant warrior, thinking that bombing isolated targets would be sufficient to break the will of ISIS.
One wonders what a Reagan or a Roosevelt would have done when the head of the first American was severed from its body. Dawdle, dither and roll around until the next head was taken off, as happened? The real turn in the fight against ISIS, which the Americans would not admit, started when Russia unilaterally entered the fray. Then America was forced to make a robust response because they could not sit by and ignore the accomplishments of the Russians in areas where they had dismally failed.
One does not want to judge the president too harshly, but one of the problems he has faced is that he has surrounded himself with too many soothsayers who tell him exactly what he wants to hear. There is even insinuation that important information is withheld from him by some who would want to pursue an agenda other than his. One has often wondered how well he has been served by Senior Policy Advisor Valerie Jarrett. There is no voice in the White House, other than his wife’s, that is more trusted than Jarrett’s. The fact is that the president trusts the voices of his confidants even more than he seems to trust the voices of his generals in the field. In a recent edition of Brett Baier’s Special Report programme on
Fox News, three secretaries of defence — Gates, Panetta and Hagel — expressed frustration at how the White House staff have sought to “meddle” in important military decisions.
One of the results of this “meddling” is the frustration of the military which, understandably, should know more about military matters than a group of young whippersnappers in high-end suits in the White House. Listening to his own voice and that of the people who really matter could have served the president better. Now the president looks drained and tired. Like the waning days of the George Bush presidency, Obama seems to be marking time, counting down the days when he will leave a job that has already left him. At this late stage, there is nothing he can do to burnish his image. The nuclear accord reached with Iran seems to be in doubt now that its protocols are being implemented. It may yet turn out to have not been worth the paper on which it was printed.
His foreign policy has not been an outright failure, as nothing in that regard ever really is. But one cannot say that the state of America’s respectability in the world is any better than where Bush left it. Where Bush left it created a lot of headaches for whoever would have replaced him, and Barack can attest to that by the amount of political excedrins he has had to swallow. The state of the world and America’s response to it has shown up important contradictions in America’s soft and hard power. And those contradictions, for those who have taken note of them, have not been easy to stomach. History will be his final judge, but for now the verdict does not seem to be shaping too well.